Five Myths About Short Writing

CORRECTION APPENDED


Time-starved readers say they want short writing. Editors want to give it to them. Only we writers stand in their way. We –- who demand our anecdotal leads. We -– who love narratives but revile the nut graph. We –- who measure our performance in levels of deforestation.


Truth be told, even we scribes are coming around. We realize that the quill that scraped out “Hamlet” also inked a sonnet or two. Even the stately Poynter Institute, home planet of tree killers, ran its first seminar on Writing Short. We’ve got another planned for this year.

Having spent most of 2003 studying the craft of short writing, I’ve encountered a number of arguments I now believe to be myths. Until we dispel these, not only will our long stories be too long, but our short ones will be too long as well.

Myth #1. Stubborn writers are to blame for all the long writing.

Wrong. The fault lies with editors. Here’s why: Most editors edit for holes in stories. They read reports looking for things that are missing. “Do we know what the mayor thinks of that?” “What happened to the girls in the accident?” “Did you get the name of the dog?” In general, such questions help the writer by anticipating needs of the reader. Writers listen to the questions and adjust their reporting to account for them. Their goal becomes to write a story that anticipates the editor’s questions. The reporter winds up putting information in the story that the reader does not need -– just to satisfy the editor’s curiosity. Dear editor: this makes the story longer.

Myth #2. Short writing takes less time.

Testimony on this subject comes from no less a figure than Blaise Pascal who apologized to a reader for having written a long letter, arguing that he didn’t have the time to write a short one. Writing a short story may take as much or more reporting as a long one. Why? Because the reporter needs to learn enough to earn the authority to leave things out. Dispelling this myth is crucial because it will separate those who really have the readers’ needs in mind from those editors who want short writing only because news resources are shrinking.

Myth #3. Short writing takes less space.

It seems like simple arithmetic: Fewer words equals less space. But smart editors realize that great short writing creates room for other story elements. Now the story can be accompanied by a large and compelling photo, or an informative graphic. Short writing means that the text can run in larger type or that a design editor can make better use of white space. All the story elements can consume as much or more space as the original inflated text.

Myth 4. Short is the enemy of long.

An important problem in American newspapers, I would argue, is not the proliferation of long, in-depth stories and investigations. These, in fact, are few and far between. The enemy of both short and long is Average. Typical stories written off standard beats can run somewhere between 15 and 25 inches. Many of these stories should be cut by a third. Editors are to blame again. In spite of their protestations that stories are too long, they will not give good play to stories that are concise and precise. In other words, editors reward length, so writers write long. Fewer average stories would create space for a rich combination of short and long writing.

Myth 5. Short is the enemy of good.

Short writing does not have to result in the thing that George Costanza fears most: shrinkage. At its best, short writing shines around a pinpoint focus. It begins with something crafty and compelling. You can see its jeweled belly button in the middle. The ending burns into the reader’s memory.

Editors who help dispel these five myths will gain the confidence of skeptical writers when it comes time to work together on behalf of the reader.

[This column is about 20 inches long, and takes about four minutes to read.]

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article attributed the saying to Mark Twain, a common mistake.

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